Why bother with research engagement?

Mark Hamann (James Cook University)After working for both NGOs and government, Mark Hamann is now a researcher and lecturer at James Cook University in Townsville.

His research interests cross several disciplines but generally relate to marine wildlife ecology, marine and freshwater turtle biology, marine wildlife management, conservation biology, and the impacts of plastic pollution on marine ecosystems.

Most of Mark’s current research projects are conducted with partners from government, industry, NGOs and Indigenous communities. He spends a considerable amount of his time talking about science and science delivery with his collaborators.

Last year, Mark participated in “I’m a Scientist get me out of here” and he was introduced to the world of online science communication. 

Mark tweets from @turtlesatJCU.


We already engage all the time. It’s a part of family life, work, and our everyday relationships.

Weave mandala (Photo courtesy of Mr Greenjeans on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gaylon)

Weave mandala (Photo courtesy of Mr Greenjeans on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gaylon)

Engagement describes a journey; it is about building a conversation, a friendship, trust and – ultimately – a working relationship.

But why do we need to do it? And how do we, as scientists, engage? Do the ways in which a researcher might engage differ from how we engage with friends and family?

In a professional sense, scientists need to engage across many sectors of society. They need to do this to keep their work relevant, market themselves and their research potential, and create networks that help build a career, another’s career, foster collaborations, or to assist in government decision-making processes.

General engagement models consist of a series of stages that shift the relationship from Information sharing through to Empowerment (Information – Consult – Involve – Collaborate – Empower). With empowerment comes a traditional relationship with shared deliberations, shared goals, and ultimately the shifting of power for making decisions from one party to another. The goal of an engagement exercise might not necessarily be Empowerment, but it is a highly sought-after endpoint in many community-based projects. It is certainly true, for example, in community-based management of natural spaces.

Many people have an intrinsic ability to engage, especially in a public arena, yet struggle in a professional setting. Getting it more right than wrong requires practice, patience, and risk.

In 2001, I had just started a working on a project to set up a sea turtle monitoring project in a remote part of Northern Australia. It was a short, one-year project to collect biological data from turtles so we could fill an important knowledge gap for their management. The challenge for me was that I had never been to an Indigenous community and had little knowledge of how to even begin.

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Golden-brown grant applications

Mmm, pie (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Mmm, pie (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

A colleague once boasted to me that she had pulled together an ARC Discovery over a weekend.

I asked if she thought the application had a chance of being awarded. She shrugged and said she didn’t care; she was under pressure to submit an ARC application and that was what she was doing.

Even then, before my life as a research grant developer, I immediately thought, “Well, that’s a waste of everyone’s time.”

Yes, major grant systems are overloaded and under-resourced.

Yes, many excellent and worthy projects go unfunded.

And much that is not so excellent or worthy goes unfunded, too. I would venture to say that these should never have been submitted in the first place.

You can’t write a great major grant application from scratch in a weekend.

You just can’t.

As I’ve become more experienced on this other side of the fence in the area of research development, this fact has crystallised.

Even if you devote the whole weekend’s 48 hours to pulling it together, it won’t be great. It might be eligible and compliant, but chances are it’ll be flabby, inconsistent, and unpolished.

In other words, half-baked.

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Hashing it over

Pink button with # symbol and blank line, held in an open palm

Hashtag button (Photo by Eclecticlibrarian)

Anyone who has converted to Twitter, and uses it with regularity will know about the prevalent use of hashtags to ‘stream’ tweet content.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, have a quick read of this official Twitter page, or check out the wittier, unofficial Guardian version.

In short:

A hashtag, for the non-Twitterati, is a word or smashed-together phrase preceded by the hash symbol (#), originally devised as a way to keep track of the flow of subject matter in the Twittersphere. (Ben Zimmer, Visual Thesaurus)

I recently saw someone on Facebook cramming hashtags into their status update. I must admit to rolling my eyes and muttering acidly, “It’s not Twitter, doofus” (oh, yes, fear my acidity).

Yes, I know Facebook is trying to get in on the hashtag action, but – in the very average ways I use Fb – it is largely absent and still an anomaly. Those who frequent Yammer have often used hashtags, and I know of tragics who have brought the hashtagging habit to their emails.

For the most part, though, hashtags live on Twitter.

When I first started on Twitter, I thought hashtags were silly. Yeah, that’s me: broadminded and noble embracer of change.

What I failed to realise was that getting value out of hashtags, and getting to a stage where I’m using and following them deliberately, requires a commitment to the medium that I didn’t have as a newbie. At that stage, all I saw was a soup of symbols and run-together text.

Since that time, I have come to love hashtags. Love them with an unnatural, nerdy love.

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Public Engagement: Writing an Opinion Piece

Dr Meagan TylerDr Meagan Tyler is a lecturer in Sociology at Victoria University, Australia. She is currently on secondment to the Centre for Sustainable Organisations and Work (CSOW) at RMIT University, conducting research for the Bushfire CRC project: “Effective Communication: Communities and bushfire.”

Meagan has written pieces for The Drum and The Conversation, has been quoted in a variety of publications (including The Age, The Times [UK], and Cosmopolitan), and recently appeared on the TV current affairs program, The Project.

She tweets @DrMeaganTyler.


Academics want their work to be read, and public engagement can be a very useful way to make sure this happens.

There are three main reasons why getting your research out to wider audience can be a good idea:

  1. you have expertise to share on a particular issue in the news,
  2. you want to get the results of your work out to the public, and
  3. you want to raise your profile.

As a researcher, it can be infuriating when you read a piece – in a newspaper or online – that deals with your research area, and it turns out to be misleading or inaccurate. It can be difficult, particularly as an early career researcher, to know how to add your voice and expertise to the debate.

There are several ways you can become more involved, including starting your own blog, getting active on Twitter, putting profile pages up on sites like Academia.edu, and writing opinion pieces. These take time and patience, but they will help raise your profile, thus improving your chances of being quoted in papers, interviewed on radio or TV, or invited to write.

A soap box (Photo by MonsieurLui - http://www.flickr.com/photos/monsieurlui)

A soap box (Photo by MonsieurLui – http://www.flickr.com/photos/monsieurlui)

All of this means that your research will be more widely read, and the possibility that you might actually influence public debate on a topical issue is much greater.

If there is a particular issue in the news that relates to your work, it’s always helpful to contact your institution’s media unit as a first port of call. In fact, if you have just started in a new position or have recently completed a major piece of work (funded project, PhD etc.), it can be valuable simply to let your media unit know you exist and are able to comment on certain areas. They may be able to direct media queries to you in the future, or help you get opinion pieces published.

Many university media units also offer writing and media engagement workshops to help you figure out what the mainstream media are looking for in an op-ed. These can be a great place to start, and are a helpful reminder that academic writing is often a world away from conveying your point to a broader audience in only 600-800 words.

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How to make casual employment work for you

Anuja CabraalDr Anuja Cabraal (@AnujaCabraal) has been a researcher for almost ten years. Over this time, she has worked on a lot of different topics, including learning and teaching, banking and architecture. Her favourite research areas are migration & identity studies and social & financial exclusion.

She is also a trainer and consultant with Nvivo, a qualitative research software program designed to help make the process of qualitative data analysis easier.

She completed her PhD in January 2011 in the area of microfinance and social & financial exclusion.

Anuja blogs about research methods and information sharing as Anuja Cabraal, A Research Enthusiast.


Life as a casual can be very empowering, and it all comes down to attitude.

There is so much negative talk about being a casual in a university environment, especially from people undertaking, completing, or having just graduated with their PhD.

Robot in the sky (Photo by Jonathan O'Donnell; taken at the Ghibli Museum)

Robot in the sky (Photo by Jonathan O’Donnell; taken at the Ghibli Museum)

While I can understand it, and do recognise the challenges (I moaned about it myself, initially), I also made the most of it and have found a lot of freedom and excitement in the work I have been doing.

There is always the important issue of financial security, but I believe that if you put that aside and focus on the positives of being a casual (and, yes, they do exist), you can be in a position where finance issues resolve themselves.

The main thing to remember as a casual is that you have choice and opportunity, and these can be very valuable.

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Five ways to make a difference

Sticky notes listing impacts of climate change.

Impacts, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

We aren’t here just to generate papers, people.

We’re here to make a difference, to improve things.

Heaven knows, there are enough issues out there that need our help!

If your research sits within the academy, being cited by other researchers, then you might get a promotion. But you probably won’t make a difference.

Here are five ways you can get out there and help put your research into action. Read more of this post

Think like a kindergarten

Chinese lion dancer, surrounded by smoke

‘Lion in the smoke’ by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr.

About every six months, someone I know asks me to help them to find funding for their community group / kindergarten / art project. Fundraising is a different process to applying for research funding.

However, thinking about how you fund a community project is a useful way to refresh your thinking about how to attract funding for your research program / centre / institute.

So, in that spirit, here is a new way to look at raising some funds.

First of all, most community projects are looking for an ongoing funding stream, rather than one-off project funding. A modest request might be looking for $120,000 – $180,000 per year, every year, to keep the program running. Often, they will get started with a one-off injection of funds and are looking to move to a continuous, reliable source of funding. This is possible, and very hard work.

Work with the community

Local problems need local solutions. Most community projects are located, by definition, in a community. One of the standard truths for finding long-term solutions is that you need local input to make it stick. You can’t impose solutions from the outside. So, work with the community to build a long-term local base of support. It will be hard for them to put in the time, and you are going to have to work hard to make it work, but it will be worth it in the long run.

Think like a sports club, community orchestra or kindergarten. Think about sausage sizzles, working bees, planning meetings, committee meetings… All of these things need volunteers. Chair, secretary, and treasurer are all volunteer positions that you will need to manage your money. This voluntary labour force can be drawn from your supporters. You need a mailing list, and probably a way to keep in touch with these people on a day-to-day basis (e.g. a Facebook group). This will need a volunteer to coordinate the contact list, too!

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Do you have a card?

Business cards for Star Trek

Star Trek Business Cards by The Rocketeer on Flickr

I know a bloke who works for a bank. Let’s call him David.

David is senior enough that he authorises his own business cards. As he was filling out the form, he realised two things:

1. The people who care about his business card are never going to see the form, and
2. The people who see the form don’t care what goes on his business card.

So, in the box labelled ‘Position’, he carefully wrote “Dilettante”.

Sure enough, when his business cards arrived, David found that the bank was paying him to be a dilettante.

I’ve just run out of business cards, so I’m thinking about what I should put on the form. It seems to me that my business card and my e-addressbook (where I keep everybody else’s business cards) are a bit behind the times.

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Keeping everyone happy? (Community House Rules: Part 2)

Melissa Phillips has worked for over ten years with NGOs supporting refugees and asylum-seekers in Australia and the UK. She also lived in South Sudan from 2005-2009, where she worked with UN agencies and NGOs. These days Melissa is a full-time PhD student at the University of Melbourne on an industry-funded project. Her world seems a lot smaller but thankfully her research interests in forced migration and migration studies take her to many faraway places from the comfort of her desk. 


If you’ve followed the Community House Rules advice (as well as that presented in the fantastic comments), found your research partner/s, submitted a successful proposal, and agreed on the minutiae of your project agreement, you’re probably cashed-up and raring to go!

The following considerations are not intended as kill-joys for those of you with your hiking boots on ready to get into your fieldwork. Instead, they map out obstacles that can de-rail projects, and I suggest ways to avoid getting your boots dirtier than you may have intended.

These considerations do add more time to the planning and preparation stage, but if you’ve worked hard to get this far, a few more months won’t hurt. Trust me!

Danger (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

How is the project structured?

  • There are numerous ways to structure a project governance body that provides feedback and comment as the project progresses. It could be, for instance, an advisory group (composed of researchers and partners), or a wider Steering Group (with community representatives). Remember that consultation raises expectations and can lead to unexpected problems but, if it’s done well, groups can involve other influential players in the research and encourage a sense of project ownership.
  • When I was a little girl (ok, an applicant for a doctoral scholarship), I dreamed that my project would be consultative, representative and useful. So, I thought a Participatory Action Research approach would be the best fit because it encouraged real-time feedback. When I grew up, I realised this decision was not up to me, but it may be something you can consider.
  • On a more mundane note, you need to establish the key contacts for your project. The people who sign project agreements are usually too busy to get involved on an everyday basis. Make sure you know who you should be talking to in your partner organisation/s, and always get the contact number for the CEO’s Executive Assistant!

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Community House Rules

Our first guest post for 2012 is by Melissa Phillips who has worked for over ten years with NGOs supporting refugees and asylum-seekers in Australia and the UK. She also lived in South Sudan from 2005-2009, where she worked with UN agencies and NGOs. These days Melissa is a full-time PhD student at the University of Melbourne on an industry-funded project. Her world seems a lot smaller but thankfully her research interests in forced migration and migration studies take her to many faraway places from the comfort of her desk. 


A

If you are working on an industry Linkage project, or have ever had to develop a research proposal, you’ve no doubt had to write a line or two about ‘community’. ‘Working with the community’, ‘engaging the community’, ‘giving back to the community’… you know the drill.

Researchers can and do have positive and rewarding interactions with communities and vice versa. Having worked on both sides of the divide, I really believe that partnerships between academics and communities are vital. Some of my most enjoyable interactions have been running, or participating in, a focus group. As a community worker I’ve loved listening to ideas that researchers can voice – ideas that I’ve not dared to think. Now as a postgraduate student I value the time and patience that community groups give to the questions that I ask.

Like any relationship, research-community partnerships require a bit of effort. I think that the trickiest part isn’t those few sentences that you draft for your research proposal – it’s putting them into practice.

In the past, I’ve managed a refugee settlement program and worked for a national refugee policy and advocacy organisation. What I’ve written below is based on my experience in the refugee and migrant services community sector. It focuses on the broader aspects of relationship building and will be followed up (if you promise to comment nicely on this post) with a more ‘how-to’ guide on working with communities, especially getting research participants. But first you’ve got to get your foot in the door!

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